It tells you all you need to know about my childhood that I had several teachers tell me I had one mouth and two ears for a reason. While I grew up with a “hearing problem,” listening was my deficit area.

The adults in my life assumed my cluelessness was due to my hearing impairment. My hearing was severely compromised by a combination of faulty Eustachian tubes and scores of ear infections brought on by years in the pool practicing for the swim team. Unfortunately, I learned early on I could peek at the audiologist pressing her joystick button through the glass partition when I couldn’t hear the beep. This allowed me to avoid being fitted with hearing aids, which in my adolescent mind was as socially damning as fitting me with a satellite dish.

As a result, I spent the first half of my life with people wondering whether I was stubborn, stupid, or just not paying attention. Choosing from one of these three would have been correct in most cases, but as I got older I learned there’s a big difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is merely the perception of sound, whereas the act of listening is to give that sound attention.

There are things I struggle to hear to this day, even with my hearing aids. I can’t hear anyone on a basketball court or beach because there are no walls off which sound can bounce. I can’t hear the whine of my refrigerator that drives my dogs crazy. I can’t hear the morning alarm if my left ear is on the pillow.

There are also things I hear but refuse to listen to. I hear the doorbell and my cell phone ring. I hear my students groan when I talk about grammar. I hear the salesman when he tells me to get the accident protection plan for my phone. Hearing something doesn’t mean I have to listen to it.

My wife hears me complain about how the Mets are ruining my life with all their late-inning collapses, but she’s not listening. I hear her explain that grown men shouldn’t care whether total strangers win a ballgame, but I’m not listening, either. We both pray the Mets could just win already to avoid all this, but no one Upstairs has listened since 1986.

Hearing is easy; listening takes effort. I don’t just hear the Beatles, I listen to them. “Let It Be” is not just a collection of tones but rather a balm for my soul. In the same way, I listen when my students are hurting or my mom talks about the things she misses about my late father. I listen when my wife tells me she loves me or when I notice that knocking sound coming from my car engine. Listening is appreciation.

The difference between hearing and listening is becoming increasingly important. Our country is hearing from so many talking heads before the upcoming presidential election that it’s hard to listen to any of them. Worse, we’ve stopped listening to each other. When we refuse to listen to those who disagree with us, we’ll never hear new solutions.

“And when the broken-hearted people living in the world agree, there will be an answer….” In these “times of trouble,” I really hope we listen to “words of wisdom” while we’re still able to hear them.

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